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Ian Redmond – Fist-fights and a 4WD angel

20th August– As dawn broke, I realised why so many people say this is one of the most spectacular lodges on the planet.   Built on a hilltop, it has a 360 degree view, with Mount Muhabura to the north and the rest of the Virunga chain of volcanoes stretching off to the west; far below to the south lie the twin lakes of Bulera and Ruhondo, surrounded by shambas – small plots of land, each of which supports a family or two.  The rooms are beautifully furnished, simple but stylish with luxurious touches here and there, and with eco-loos and solar powered lights, the carbon footprint is minimal. 

Dawn at Virunga Lodge, Rwanda -  Photo Ian Redmond.

Volcanoes Safaris also run sustainable development projects with the local communities, and at breakfast I enjoyed Virunga Honey – harvested from bee-hives kept along the edge of the park so the bees can forage in gorilla habitat.   Recently a bee-keeper was smoking one such hive to extract honey when the fire got out of control and spread into the park, burning up the slopes of Muhabura.   Fortunately, it did not get near any known gorilla habitat, but it was a stark reminder of how fragile an island of forest this is.  

The border with Uganda opens at 7.00am, but Uganda is in the next time zone so walking a few yards cost me an hour.  A taxi met me as arranged and, after a tyre change in Kisoro, we were climbing northeastwards towards Kabale where I hoped to catch the express bus to Kampala.  The taxi for the first stage was necessary because I had to be there by 5.00pm for another press briefing/reception at 5.30 at Makerere University, organised by the British High Commission.  

Mts Muhabura and Mgahinga in morning mists from Virunga Lodge, Rwanda - Photo Ian Redmond.

We pulled into Kabale at 10.45 and no-one had seen the express bus pass.  Was I in luck?  Three colourful buses were revving their engines and honking their horns, vying for passengers, and I tried to establish which one would arrive in Kampala first while agents from each tried to lure or man-handle me onto theirs.  I went for the blue one, whose driver said he was leaving right now, then watched the yellow one pull away. Never mind, I thought, the chap on the back seat holding a rather fine brown hen would make an interesting interviewee once we got under way.

These thoughts were interrupted by a dramatic melée in front of the bus, where a fist fight had broken out.  Fortunately, even though the protagonists (two versus one) were squaring up to each other like bare-knuckle prize-fighters, they were better at dodging than landing blows and no serious damage was done, except to the under-dog’s shirt which was ripped right off.   Like any playground fight, the crowd comprised those trying to separate the fighters, those just curious and those who couldn’t resist throwing a gratuitous punch at the backs of any fighter coming their way (you see the same behaviour in several social species).   Entertaining though this was, the driver’s “right now” had lasted half an hour and so I picked up my bags, got off and stood in front of the bus, telling the driver I’d get on when “right now” happened, but until then, I’d try to flag down any kind of vehicle actually moving towards Kampala. 

Ian Redmond. Picture by Mick O’Donnell.

The timing was right because a couple of minutes later a 4WD pulled up, driven by a well dressed businessman going to Kampala.   It turned out his business was carrying people and goods, so we agreed on a price and zoomed off at 11.17.   Within an hour we overtook the yellow bus (Yesss! I thought), and apart from stopping to buy some vegetables we were making good time.   I was getting worried calls from the British High Commission at intervals, so when he slowed down to pick up more passengers, I said, “How much to buy all four places?”.   His foot went down on the accelerator and we agreed terms – he knew the University and would take me straight there.  

We crossed the Equator at 4.15 and when the BHC rang next, they figured they’d have to serve drinks and canapés until I arrived, fully expecting me to be an hour or two late.   Luckily with schools on holiday the evening traffic was kind to us and I had the satisfaction of arriving precisely at 5.30pm to meet the diplomats, reporters, dignitaries and conservation colleagues assembling on the lawn by the refreshment tent.  

The Hon. David Ebong MP spoke first.  As Chairman of Uganda’s Parliamentary Forum on Climate Change, he was very aware of the forest issues behind the YoG campaign (see ‘More than Trees’ in YoG downloads and www.4apes.com/carbon).   It was dusk as I began my Powerpoint presentation, and just before I spoke about the role of gorillas as seed-dispersal agents, a fine pair of hornbills glided low over the audience to their evening roost, reminding us that they too are seed dispersal agents for smaller seeds.  

Gorillas, however, are second only to elephants in both the size and number of seeds dispersed each day, so if we want healthy, bio-diverse tropical forests in the future, we must protect the gardeners of the forest today.   The CEO of Uganda Wildlife Authority, Moses Mapesa, helped take some of the Uganda-specific questions from the press.   It was a lively discussion, partly because illegal settlers have recently been evicted from some of Uganda’s forests, and the struggle to balance forest conservation and the aspirations of communities in and around forests is neither easy nor simple.  

I pointed out the fact that in the UK, National Parks are full of farmers, but they have to follow rules designed to maintain the habitats on their land to maintain biodiversity and the beauty of the landscape.  The challenge in tropical forests is to find ways of allowing communities therein to develop, but in ways that are compatible with maintaining the health of the forest – and payment for the global eco-system services provided by these forests – such as carbon sequestration and storage – should be a part of it.  

The evening had been a great success, if a close run thing at the start, and as I rolled up the YoG banner the BHC kindly donated for future such events on the tour, I couldn’t help but wonder what time the blue bus finally arrived in Kampala…
 
Coming soon –

21-24th August Coughs and chills might kill gorills, but ebola wipes out populations – thoughts from the Great Ape Health Workshop, Entebbe

25th – 27th Journey to Kinshasa

Read Ian’s previous post here!

August 16th – Ex-Militiamen’s long way back to normality

 Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

16th – Gisenyi is a peaceful place for a holiday, with a golden sandy beach and luxury hotels.   Recently, Presidents Kabila and Kagame, of DRC and Rwanda, held a joint press conference on the border between the twin towns of Goma (DRC side) and Gisenyi (Rwanda side).   The event created a palpable sense of optimism that security and stability might soon return to the region.  

Part of that process involves trying to lure back the armed militias of Rwandan origin who have been living as outlaws, terrorising villagers, in the forests of eastern DRC since the genocide 15 years ago.  Today, the Network 7 crew had arranged to visit a nearby Demobilisation and Rehabilitation Centre to interview some of these ex-combatants who, in an extraordinary experiment, are being given the chance of a new life. 

The smooth tarmac of Rwanda’s roads wound upwards from the lake and we were soon pulling into a compound with several large corrugated iron buildings.  From one of them came the sound of singing and clapping – music is central to Rwandan culture – and after a short wait we entered the barn-like hall.   The 200 or so men had clearly been given a lecture, and among the Kinyarwandan words on the blackboard, one stood out – ‘jenocide’.   

The principle behind this scheme is that people show remorse for the suffering they have caused, and learn to live a normal life again.  Our driver Yahaya announced in Kinyarwanda what we hoped to do, and asked if any of those present had been involved with mining or bushmeat poaching.   Quite a few stood up and out of those prepared to talk to the camera, we selected three.  The most harrowing for me was the second, Emanuel, a fresh-faced, slender young man of 22.   Yes, he had killed people he said; he was five when he fled to Congo, and 12 when he first killed;  he had used guns, knives and machetes – whatever was to hand – and didn’t know how many people he had killed.  My heart went out to him as much as to those he had bereaved, because he was a victim too.  

Emanuel Hakizimana, former child soldier in DRC, now returned to Rwanda - Photo Ian Redmond.

The use of child soldiers to commit atrocities is one of the most chilling practices. We are social beings and when young, follow the example of those who care for us.   Children need role models, but if your role model is a murderer and heaps praise on you when you kill, you become trapped in a twisted parody of family life and then used as a tool to commit evil deeds.  I noticed he was wearing a crucifix, and he explained he had become a Christian since returning to Rwanda.  One can but hope that his new faith will help keep him on the right path.

The other two men, Samuel and Valence, were older and a little more guarded in their answers.   They had been adults in 1994 and when Grant Denyer, the Network 7 presenter, asked about whether they had killed simply said that when one shoots in a war, one cannot tell if your bullet hits someone.  As well as unknown numbers of people, all three also admitted to killing chimpanzees, elephant and, in Valence’s case, gorillas.  I asked whether it was a male or female gorilla, and he replied it was a silverback he had killed and butchered for meat.   “But Rwandans don’t eat gorillas,” I said, “Why did you do it?” “Because I was with Congolese soldiers who told me to.”  And I suppose that if he had refused, he might not be here today….

He insisted that he regretted his crimes and was grateful for the chance of a new start in life, but all three were worried about how they would make a living when they re-entered normal society.  As we pulled away and drove to Kigali, we were worried too – deep in thought about what we had heard and wondering whether their remorse was real and whether ‘normal society’ was ready to accept them, warts and all.

Read Ian’s previous post here.

August 15th – Crossing Lake Kivu

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond, Year of the Gorilla Ambassador. 

These past few days since my last blog have been an extraordinary journey, not just geographically but between the extremes of human nature – great joy and inspiration contrasting with harrowing stories of our species’ ability to inflict great suffering.  Email access has been intermittent and time short, but let me bring you up to date day by day:

15th – Lake Kivu is a beautiful lake, dotted with islands and dug-out canoes.  Crossing it on the deck of a high-speed ferry is a delightful experience on a fine day.   Inside, the passenger cabin has rows of comfortable seats on either side of a central aisle and a wide-screen TV which usually shows videos.  Unfortunately the DVD player had malfunctioned so we had to make our own entertainment (reviewing rushes with the Australian Network 7 crew).  This was a particular disappointment to me because the videos most often shown nowadays are documentaries provided by the Great Apes Film Initiative (http://www.gafi4apes.org) in association with the Gorilla Organization (GO).  

Lake Kivu ferry, DRC. Picture by Mick O’Donnell.

GAFI aims to rectify the iniquitous fact that films made about wildlife by TV companies in UK, Europe, America and Japan are unaffordable to most TV stations in the developing world where so many of those documentaries are made.  Thus, the average man, woman or child in the street in UK or USA knows more about gorillas than their counterparts in Africa.  GAFI has begun to rectify that by negotiating broadcast rights for films about great apes on TV stations in great ape range states.  And with the help of partner NGOs, also organises public screenings and provides a library of such films to education centres.  

The screenings on the Lake Kivu ferries have been a great success, educating all those able to afford the $50 fare (politicians, aid workers, businessmen and -women) about the importance of conserving Congo’s forest eco-systems.  As the steward served drinks and sandwiches, I asked if he had the GAFI films and he immediately opened the cupboard under the screen to show me the BBC’s award-winning three-part series on the Congo basin.  Shame the DVD player was broken today…

Lake Kivu crossing. Pic. by Mick O’Donnell.

As we pulled up to the Goma jetty, I was met by Tuver Wundi, a journalist who works with GO;  we did a quick YoG interview with Captain Amisi about the GAFI films (sorry, video uploading not yet sorted, so plan B is to send DVDs to colleagues at the Convention on Migratory Species – thank you, Gentle Reader, for  your patience.  If that fails, I guess I’ll try tying them to the leg of a pigeon!!).   Tuver bounced me to the border on the back of his trail bike, negotiating volcanic rocks and the famous lava flow through the middle of the town, to meet Jillian Miller, GO CEO. She was waiting in line at the DRC border-post, crossing into Rwanda, after showing a BBC World team a GO project that had been nominated for an award (see http://www.gorillas.org/worldchallenge09 ). 

Ian interviews local villagers, Kivu region, DRC. Picture by Mick O’donnell

Before I crossed, however, I wanted to visit the GO Resource Centre and interview some Goma conservationists about the Year of the Gorilla.  I rang Pierre Peron, a former Ape Alliance volunteer now working for ICCN, the Congolese Wildlife Dept, and received some shocking news.  The previous day, a patrol of Virunga Park rangers had come across some hippo poachers near Lake Edward.   The poachers had opened fire and in the ensuing fire-fight, one ranger had been killed.  Without doubt, the rangers patrolling DRC parks are among the most courageous protectors of Nature on the planet.  Senior staff were understandably busy dealing with the aftermath and unavailable for a YoG interview, so I talked to my old friend Vital Katembo and the GO team instead, before crossing into Rwanda to meet up with the Australians again.

Read Ian’s previous post here.

14th August – Miners and minors

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond. 

The biggest threat facing all the large mammals in Kahuzi-Biega NP is illegal hunting for the bushmeat trade. In the illegal mining camps in the park, miners who spend their days doing hard physical labour need protein.  They buy bushmeat from teams of hunters who comb the forest for animals and trade meat for minerals – so much ore bartered for so much meat.  Traditionally the Bashi people of this area do not eat ape meat, but it seems that in the mining camps, traditional taboos are swept aside in the turmoil of war and the desire for profit.  And as numerous reports have observed, from NGOs such as Global Witness right up to the UN Security Council, those profits are used by the militias who control the mines to acquire weapons and ammunition.  For the miners themselves, if the choice is between ape-meat and no meat, it is hardly surprising they choose to eat – as John Kahekwa, founder of the Pole Pole Foundation is fond of saying ‘an empty stomach has no ears’.

Kalimbi artisanal mine, Eastern DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

I was keen to meet some of the miners, but the lowland sector of the park is still under the control of ‘negative forces’.   After clearing our plans with MONUC yesterday, we drove instead to Kalehe today, along the lake-side road with stunning views of islands and inlets.  The mine we had arranged to visit was extracting a tin ore called cassiterite rather than the better known coltan, but both minerals are used in the manufacture of electronic devices.  We were accompanied by a government security man from Bukavu, and after meeting the Kalehe local authorities, another one from there.  Finally we met the chief of the village near the mines, and he too decided to accompany us.  We drove a few more kilometres to a steep-sided valley with sides scarred by mining waste.  Down in the valley, the stream had been repeatedly dammed and diverted to produce small alcoves with waterfalls to wash the ore.  Clusters of people were shovelling gravel or swishing it with their hands to release the sediment which was carried downstream.  The sediment-filled water was in stark contrast to the clear mountain streams that flowed down the hill before meeting the mine tailings.

Modifying stream flow to wash cassiterite, Kalimbi, E.DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

Many of the people in the stream-bed were clearly teenagers, some even younger. Mines in eastern DRC are notorious for using child labour, but although many of these miners were minors, to be fair it was the school holidays and like teenagers everywhere they were working to earn a few bob.  The presence of mothers with babies and people of both sexes and all ages carrying sacks and washing ore gave it the feel of a sort of community mine.  There was no apparent overseer forcing the kids to work, they seemed self-motivated and cheerful despite their obvious poverty.  At my request, the village chief asked some of them if they attended school, and of course they dutifully nodded..

Woman carrying 36 kg of Cassiterite, DRC. Photo Ian Redmond.

A smallish woman came down the steep path with a fore-head strap supporting a sack of ore on her lower back.  I helped to lift it off and – impressed by the weight – borrowed a spring balance.  It weighed 36 Kg but she laughed at my surprise and said it wasn’t particularly heavy.  We followed the path up the hillside to the mines – simple holes dug into the ground by men with torches strapped to the side of their head, wielding lump-hammers and chisels. Outside the mine entrance, a boy sat pounding ore into smaller fragments and picking out the heavy bits that contained cassiterite.  The waste was tipped down the hillside, causing the scarring we had seen from the opposite side, and promising bits were put into sacks to be taken down and washed in the stream.  Jason the camera-man followed the miners down into the ground and I followed him down the steep descent, slippery with mud.  This kind of mining is known as artisanal mining, and it doesn’t get much more basic than this.  Squatting in the dark with weak batteries in their torches (another expense to come out of the meagre earnings) men were hammering their chisels into the rock face and assessing by weight and appearance the lumps they chipped off.  After taking some video of the work, I gave my camera to one of the security men behind me and gave it a go.  I used to work for a builder when I was a teenager, so using a lump-hammer and chisel was not new to me, but in the confined space it was difficult to swing the hammer, and when I did chisel off a few lumps, the owner of the tools pointed out that there was no cassiterite in them.  It may be hot, sweaty manual work, but you need to know what you are doing if you want to make a living out of it.

Miners at work underground, Kalimbi, E.DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

Back at the cars, I interviewed the president of the Kalimbi miners, Mr Safari Kulimushi, and asked him about the laundering of illegally mined minerals.  He said that the biggest problem was the insecurity – people never knew when the next armed gang would come through killing, raping and looting homes.  Because of that, it was difficult to monitor what was going on in all the mines.  Things were much better organised when there were expatriates running the mines, he opined, because they had machines  gave training.and maintained the roads better.  We both agreed that what the area needed was investment from the industries that used the tin and tantalum being mined here – then workers would get a fair wage and be taught how to mine safely (we saw not a single helmet, pit-prop or safety device) whilst minimising the environmental impact.  

M.Safari Kulimushi, President of Miners at Kalimbi, E.DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

And if the industry investment included developing a system of certification, then the use of ‘conflict minerals’ would be reduced if not eliminated.  This is what the Gorilla Organization has been trying to do with the Durban Process (so called because they first got miners, traders and end-users around a table in Durban to hammer out an agreement and develop plans to set up a model mine to show how it should be done).  Unfortunately the process has stalled due to lack of resources – there is only so much a small NGO can do.  So again, one has to ask where is the investment from the wealthiest industries on the planet – electronic goods manufacturers who use the tin in solder and tantalum in capacitors, or for that matter the media and telecommunications companies that depend on electronic goods?

Heavy metal - cassiterite tin ore, E.DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

The journey back to Bukavu was long, bumpy, dusty and – for most of it – dark. When the steel plate that protects the sump rattled loose for the second time, I got out my Swiss Army knife and cut another length of para-cord to tie it up again.  You are a sitting duck in such a situation, and indeed we were ambushed – but by kindness not bullets – as locals came out to see what was going on, and one man immediately volunteered to crawl under the vehicle to tie up the plate.  He didn’t even ask for payment, just shook our hand and wished us a safe journey, which is what we had – arriving back at the hotel at nearly 10.00pm for a late supper.

That’s all for now folks – tomorrow, on to Goma.

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here.

13th August 2009: Security and sanctuary in South Kivu

Posted (with regrettable delay) on behalf of Ian Redmond.

Today didn’t quite work out as planned.  Early in the morning I bumped into the vice-governor of South Kivu province, Jean Claude Kibala, who I’d met at the Frankfurt Gorilla Conference and who was busy making arrangements for President Kabila, who was visiting Bukavu.  I asked him whether he thought the President would give a message for the Year of the Gorilla.  He thought it quite likely, given the economic importance of gorilla tourism in the region, and said he’d call this evening if it could be arranged.

Ian Redmond.

The Australian Network 7 film crew, minus the producer and me, had already set off early to Kahuzi-Biega National Park HQ to film the morning deployment of rangers and gorilla monitoring teams.  Eleven groups of gorillas are monitored daily in the 600 square kilometre highland sector of the park, despite the dangers of ‘negative forces’ (militias) they may encounter in the forest.  As yet it is too dangerous to have this level of conservation activity in the 10 times bigger lowland sector.  Rebel militias (which effectively means armed bandits) living in the forest need the same equipment as park guards, so attacks on guard posts are all too common.   The producer, Mick O’Donnell, and I intended to visit the Bukavu base of MONUC, the UN Mission in DRC, to check the security situation for Kalehe (where we wanted to film at a mine the next day) then planned to join the crew to film community conservation projects of the Pole Pole Foundation (PoPoF) around the park.  

MONUC is a large, multi-national military operation, and to cut a long story short, we were directed here, there and everywhere by people from Poland, Niger, Pakistan and Egypt without finding the person with whom Mick had been corresponding.   By early afternoon we were out at the airport base talking to a friendly Indonesian officer (who had studied at Monash University in Melbourne so spoke Australian, and came from Sumatra where he had visited orangutans).  Bizarrely, we then found ourselves listening to a conversation in Bahasa as he called his Indonesian colleague in the area of the mine we hoped to film.   Fortunately, all was calm in that area and we got the go-ahead to drive there without the need of a UN escort.  For the first time ever in Africa, I found my self saying ‘terimah kasi’, rather than ‘asante sana’ as we thanked him for his time and called the crew to meet up.

Australian TV presenter Grant Denyer watches Andrea Edwards feeding orphan chimpanzees, Lwiro, DRC. -  Photo Ian Redmond

Frustratingly, the crew by then had finished filming the PoPoF projects and were heading for Lwiro, where a small sanctuary for confiscated primates has been created in recent years.  Although sad to have missed the tree-planting and school children singing, I was delighted to visit Lwiro because it was two years since my last visit and I have both human and non-human friends there.  The Centre for Research in Natural Science in Lwiro is a fascinating place – a large and beautifully constructed complex that now sadly looks rather dilapidated.  It was built during the Belgian colonial period with labs and offices linked by covered walkways with arches, giving a cloister-like feel, as if it was a remote monastery for science.  In recent years CO-OPERA, a Spanish NGO, has formed a partnership with ICCN and PoPoF to co-manage the sanctuary.   ICCN is responsible for all wild animals in DRC and needed somewhere to keep animals confiscated from illegal traders or pet owners.   Lwiro had some old cages and was used as a convenient stop-gap until a proper sanctuary and rehabilitation centre can be built with the aim of eventual return to the wild for any animals fit enough.

Bertin MURHABALE and Jean Jaques BAGALWA, CRSN, Lwiro, DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

The Oz crew were keen to interview Andrea Edwards, an Australian primate keeper on secondment to Lwiro from Melbourne Zoo. I was equally keen to catch up with Carmen Vidal, a Spanish vet I’d met on my last visit soon after she had arrived to take over running the sanctuary.   I was impressed by the new, bigger cages for the chimpanzees and monkeys (though suggested that weaving some visual barriers out of branches might help the inmates deal with the inevitable ‘cabin fever’ of being locked up together in such a small space).   Carmen had a surprise in store.   A short walk from the building where the new and old cages were, she showed me a new dormitory nearing completion to better house the growing number of chimpanzees – some of whom are now adult.   Excitedly, she explained the plan to enclose two hectares of forest and two hectares of grassy scrub with an electric fence.   “The chimpanzees will be out of their cages by the end of the year!” she said. 

“And is all the funding in place?” I asked.  

Carmen Vidal of the Lwiro Sanctuary, DRC. Photo by Ian Redmond.

“Not quite,” she replied, “we are not yet approved by PASA, and some supporters will not send funds to sanctuaries that are not up to PASA standards, but of course without funds it is hard to make the improvements that are needed to achieve that standard!”

Quickly I grabbed my video camera and asked her to summarise, thinking I’d post her appeal on the Ape Alliance website (there being no confiscated gorillas at Lwiro;  sadly infant gorillas are illegally traded but when confiscated they are kept at a separate facility in the region under the care of specialist gorilla vets).  You can find out more about Lwiro at http://lwiro.blogspot.com/

While the film crew were finishing their interviews, John Kahekwa introduced me to Bertin Murhabale, a primate researcher and Jean Jaques Bagalwa, head of the Biology Department at CRSN,   I had collected a segment of gorilla tapeworm yesterday, and needed to fix it in Formalin.  They took me to see their labs where, on the bench, were piles of bags of gorilla and chimpanzee faecal samples.  Unfortunately, the primatology lab has no microscope or centrifuge, and Jean Jaques admitted that the whole research centre has only one old monocular microscope.  I invited them to give a YoG-Blog interview, which you’ll see once I find a way to upload it (but if you are reading this in a lab with old scientific equipment unused in a cupboard, do get in touch!).

Filming over, we rushed back to Bukavu (well, as fast as one can rush on atrocious roads in the dark), passing in and out of telephone network coverage, still waiting for that important ‘phone call that might add the first Head of State to the YoG Blog interviewees.  But as you might have guessed, the call never came;  maybe another opportunity will arise when I pass through Kinshasa….

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here.

Kahuzi Biega National Park, Coltan and Militias

Posted on behalf of YoG Ambassador Ian Redmond. 

So here we are in Bukavu, and after a very positive meeting with the park warden, are preparing to visit the park and the habituated gorillas tomorrow.  

But this area faces many other problems that the world has largely ignored. We spoke to a BBC news crew this evening who have been filming the mining issue from the human rights point of view. Their presence here was triggered by the recent report by Global Witness (www.globalwitness.org) on the shared responsibility we in the developed world must recognise for on-going atrocities linked to militias controlling mining operations. When we buy electronic goods, we cannot say for sure that our money is not paying for tin or tantalum (mined here in eastern DRC as cassiterite and coltan respectively) bought from rebel militias who repeatedly rape and murder to terrorise civilians in their sphere of influence.  Coltan ore confiscated in gorilla habitat, Kahuzi Biega, DRC. Picture by Ian Redmond.

Some half a million people have fled from their homes in eastern DRC as a result, and the death toll since the war began is 5 million and rising. Humanitarian reports from this region make shocking reading, and lead one to wonder why more is not being done. If even one of the hundreds of such incidents were to happen anywhere else in the world, it would be front-page news, but few reporters cover the violence in DRC. In the face of such chilling events, why would anyone care about a few gorillas being killed for bushmeat?   

The fact is, before the war, the gorillas in Kahuzi Biega brought thousands of tourists and prosperity to the region. The DRC parks department is working towards the day when the tourists return, and already a few brave pioneers are turning up each week to enjoy a gorilla encounter. Moreover, the agriculture in this region depends on the rainfall generated by the forest; and the future of the forest depends on the seed dispersal agents such as primates, elephants and hornbills surviving to play their ecological role, sowing the trees of tomorrow.

With that thought, I will blog off and get some kip before tomorrow comes!Cheers,Ian

Visit www.yog2009.org for more on the Year of the Gorilla.

Read here how Ian’s journey began.

YoG Ambassador Ian Redmond embarks on State of the Gorilla journey

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

They say a journey begins with a single step, and this one is no different, though it nearly didn’t happen.  Having picked up some YoG posters and stickers from my tiny office in the English market town of Stroud, I shouldered my rucksack, picked up my camera-bag and walked to the station.  It seemed odd exchanging greetings with people enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon drink outside the pub, knowing that I would travel through ten countries on foot, plane, dug-out and bus, through tropical forests and vibrant African cities before walking back past the same pub.  

Oddly enough, just over 24 hours later, I was exchanging greetings with people enjoying a quiet Monday evening drink in a bar in Cyangugu, Rwanda, on the border with DRC – the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Maybe it is our predilection for alcohol that unites people across the world – that, and the fact that both groups of drinkers almost certainly don’t know the UN has designated 2009 as the Year of the Gorilla, and probably wouldn’t care very much if they did, thinking it had no relevance to them.  

Rwanda is home to Mountain Gorillas and a rapidly incr. human population - Pic. by Ian Redmond

Some cynics have cast doubts on the usefulness of high-level campaigns and statements in the rarefied atmosphere of international meetings, questioning what difference it makes on the ground. One of the motivations of this journey is to find out just that.  Who knows or cares about it in the countries where gorillas live?    

Ten Gorilla Countries, 100 Interviews, Five weeks!

The aim of this journey is to gain a first-hand impression of the state of the gorilla (both species, all sub-species) in the Year of the Gorilla, and share these impressions on this YoG Blog.   The aim is also give the opportunity for about ten people in each country, from poachers to Presidents, conservationists to loggers, and the proverbial ‘man or woman in the street’, to speak on camera about what gorillas mean to them and what they think the UN YoG might achieve.  In Britain we talk of knowing the views of ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ – well I propose to find out what the men and women think on the Brazzaville, Kinshasa or Calabar omnibus! So the target is: 10 countries, 100 interviews, 5 weeks!  

Wherever possible, I’ll travel by public transport or get lifts, and seek the opinions of the people who live in or around gorilla habitat, or whose activities in towns and cities impact on same.  In each country, I’m hoping to visit at least one area of gorilla habitat and the capital city where, with the help of colleagues and friends, we’ll generate some local media interest in gorillas, their role in the forests and the role of those forests in mitigating climate change.  This ambitious itinerary, however, has only a shoe-string budget, and so I would welcome any practical help researchers, conservationists and other gorilla-friends in the field can give.

Mountain Gorilla infants playing in a tree. Picture by Rene Nijenhuis.

Network 7 and Korean TV to the rescue

When the concept of a journey through all ten gorilla range states was first put to me, we envisaged a team effort with a videographer, photographer and reporter. Unfortunately, although there were lots of expressions of interest, no media sponsor responded to our proposal with a budget and it looked as though it would not get off the drawing board. 

Then a few weeks ago, a Korean film crew making a two-part documentary about the Year of the Gorilla entitled ‘Tears of King Kong’ contacted us. They were planning to film conservation activity in and around the Virunga Volcanoes, and then travel to Congo Brazzaville to cover activities countering the threats facing western lowland gorillas, and when they invited me to join them, I began to think some of our State of the Gorilla Journey might piggy-back on their plans. 

Soon afterwards, an Australian TV crew from Network 7 contacted me to help them make a report on eastern lowland gorillas and the threats from mining for coltan and tin, and the work of ICCN, Pole Pole Foundation and local community conservation initiatives to counter those threats.   Their offer of funding to fly out and join them in DRC clinched it – on a wing and a prayer, the solo State of the Gorilla Journey was just possible!!!

So much for today. I will try to blog almost daily over the upcoming weeks, and there should be numerous photos, movies and interviews, so STAY TUNED!

Cheers, Ian